Get you up to a high mountain…lift up your voice and do not fear …be the herald of good tidings and say to the cities…”Here is your God!”
Here. Not over there. Not where we used to be or where we wish we were. No…here…Here is your God. These are the good tidings Isaiah speaks to God’s people. And these are the good tidings God then wants them all to announce to the world. In this place, in this time, in your life….God is present. God is with you. And God is mighty and strong…Isaiah says, ”See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” And God is tender and understanding…Isaiah says ”He will feed his flock like a shepherd;he will gather the lambs in his arms,and carry them in his bosom,and gently lead the mother sheep”. Basically…he has you, he holds you…and he’s not letting you go. And that’s Here. And that’s Now. This is the word God has for God’s people.
And do you know when the prophet said these words to the people of Israel? It was at their lowest point…it was when they were in exile. This word is given to them right after they had lost their homes, their communities, their country. And these verses at the beginning of the 40th chapter of Isaiah follow 39 chapters that are directed to Israel during a very different time. Prior to this, Israel had become basically like every other nation — arrogant, concerned only with profit and military might and national survival. They had lost their center as God’s people…they had ignored their covenant with God to care for those in their midst who were hurting and needy — the widow, the orphan, the refugee, the sick, the imprisoned, and dying. So those first 39 chapters of Isaiah speak to them while they are embroiled in this quagmire of national pride and greed and power. And over and over, the prophet encouraged the people to change their ways. To change their priorities. To quit caring about their nation and care for their neighbors. To trust God…not political power. Because nations fall. This is what the prophet Isaiah says…for 39 chapters. But they don’t listen. And sure enough, like every other empire, Israel falls. The armies of Babylon march against her and the people of Israel lose everything.
And this morning, we read the first words the prophet has for them after they have been forced into exile in Babylon. There…in a strange land…where nothing is familiar, where everything that made them feel secure — their communities, their homes, their jobs and family and national identity — is gone. There, right in the heart of Babylon, the prophet says…”God is HERE.” Not over there. Not where we used to be or where we wish we were. No…here…Here is your God.
Some days, we can feel like we’re in Babylon. We find ourselves in a world where all the things that made us feel secure…are gone. Loved ones have died. Our health is precarious. Our finances are precarious. Friends have moved away. Marriages have fallen apart. Mental illness has changed the fabric of our lives. Addiction has made strangers out of our beloved family members. This year, thousands have lost their homes to fires and floods. The grass has withered. The flowers have faded. And we are at a loss….grieving and anxious.
Or maybe we just find ourselves in a world where things have changed around us so much we hardly recognize it. Church isn’t the same. Families aren’t the same. Our communities aren’t the same. The country isn’t the same. And we start feeling nostalgic for the “good old days”. The pace of change in our world is unlike anything seen before in history. And the overload of information is staggering. It’s not surprising we have trouble getting our bearings. Of course, when we’re honest, we realize the good old days had its own darkness, just as ugly as anything we see today. It turns out we’re no different than the folks in exile in Babylon who longed for the “good old days”, and tended to ignore the fact that those days had been rife with injustice for many people who were out of the loop of the privileged (hence, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah ). We too, sometimes long for “good old days” that were only good for a few. But whatever the case, the word of the prophet comes to us…where we are. As we are. And says “God is HERE”…not back there. Not where we used to be or wish we were…but HERE.
And God does not wither or fade. God remains constant. God stands firm…forever. In the midst of our anxiety. In the midst of our grief. God’s word comes to us — you are mine. I am strong when you are weak. I will gather you in my arms…we will make this journey together. You have nothing to fear. I am with you.
In our gospel this morning, Mark quotes this passage from Isaiah as he talks about John the Baptist. John is the voice who tells us during this season of Advent to prepare the way for God…to cry out. And our response…”how do we do that? What shall we cry?” And the answer…Isaiah tells us: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,“Here is your God!”
Advent is about preparation for Christmas. John is trying to get us to prepare to see Jesus. And how do we do that? By lifting up our voice, by not being afraid…by trusting the word of God that stands forever…that God is here. God is With us. Jesus…Emmanuel…which means “God with us”. That is what Christmas is all about. God is here. Where we are. As we are. Today…when you go home. Remember. And go ahead…say it aloud. God is HERE. When you go to work…to school. Say it aloud. God is HERE. When you watch the news and read the paper..do not fear…lift up your voice…say it aloud. God is HERE. When you go to the clinic or the food bank…or to the store. Don’t forget to say it aloud. God is HERE.
That is the role of Isaiah. The role of John the Baptist. And it is our role…preparing the way so people can see. Being a herald of good news in the midst of the bad news all around us. You know what? This world is not going to hell in a handbasket. God is here. Your life is not without purpose. God is here. The future is not bleak. God is here. Our situation is not hopeless. God is here. And that, my friends, according to Mark… is the just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Amen.